Tuesday, 25 May 2010

How Powerful Are Virtual Incentives and Why are They Always Badges?

The introduction of Facebook's new badge for accomplishments system & website like 'Get Glue' (a recommendation engine using badges to encourage sharing) show that incentivizing on-line behavior through virtual badges is on the rise. While 'token economies' are nothing new and virtual incentives have been shaping behaviour for years (recent examples can be found in about any Facebook app), the manifestation of badges as a reward is quite interesting.

In a previous article about the psychology of Foursquare, we noted that Foursquare's badge system works to economize offline activity through online rewards. Check-in at a number of Starbucks and you get a 'Barista' badge, visit 20 pizza parlors and get the 'Piazzolo' badge. Working in concert with other operant rewards (items on Gowalla, titles on sites like Qype/Yelp, rewards/points in virtual games, etc.), these virtual items have some real behavioural change power. However, what are limits of operant behavioural conditioning through virtual badges and more importantly, WHY a badge?

To start considering the choice of badges as popular virtual rewards touches on the heart of what virtual items can be effective. Badges represent a perfect example of efficient signalers as rewards. Badges in the real world, just as in the virtual, are highly visible. They communicate an important quality or accomplishment to others in a succinct yet understandable way. Their public, yet simple nature gains its power by being understood across an audience respected by the wearer. Therefore, one can assume that the effectiveness of a reward badge is measured by how visible the item is to an audience, how communicative it is to the audience about the importance of the act and how much that audience is respected by the wearer. 

Boy scout merit badges are a good example of this. Though I only attended one scouts meeting (an introductory session which caused me to decide that not wearing a uniform and camping sounded much more fun), I and others can understand the system of how members earn badges for accomplishments (such as fishing or first aid) from popular culture.This means that the badges, which are recognizable by a large portion of a population (from either respected group members or secondary cultural members) can easily convey prowess at an activity to a large group from their highly visible position on the member's uniform.

Virtual badges on sites such as Foursquare utilize this same mechanic. The badges stay on the user's profile page, where they are instantly visible to a respected audience (other users within the wearer's network) and simply convey the accomplishment of an act.

Through these criteria, the examples of the Facebook badge system & 'Get Glue's' seem to have serious challenges, but for different reasons. The Facebook badge system, which unlocks badges based on various network accomplishments (ranging from having 'x' number of friends to opening 'x' number of groups) will instantly get adoption, due to the large number of Facebook users. The audience, combined with the ability to place it directly on the profile page/news stream, makes the reward highly visible. In addition, the audience that the badges speak to have a minimum of respect with the wearer, as they happen to be the user's peers. However, despite these strengths, most of the listed accomplishments that the badges reward for are rather pedestrian.Where is the respect for getting a moderate number of friends or starting a few groups, when any user could do it relatively easily. In this sense, Facebook faces the challenge of getting users to care about the acts the badges represent, facilitating the items to communicate a respected act easily.
Alternatively, sites like 'Get Glue' face different challenges in implementing effective online badges. The site's badges (or 'stickers' as they are called) revolve around recommending various items to others, an act integral to building the attractiveness of the network. While Facebook's 'like' feature and open graph may quickly render the site's premise obsolete, the challenge amounts are large enough that other users on the network could respect the accomplishment. The badges are highly visible on the user's page, which leads to an ease of signaling about the accomplishment. However, the small size of the site's current audience relative to other related networks (Del.icio.us, Facebook. Mr. Wong, Stumbleupon), diminishes the power of the respected audience. A smaller possible audience to notice a badge requires a fervent/insular user base to maintain the same effect, placing great pressure on the site to attract repeat users and foster frequent activity.

In both examples, as well as other rewards online, the challenge generally falls within one of our three reward criteria. However, even through considering all three factors, user behaviour is highly unpredictable. Only through understanding the overall user experience for a website or network can we attempt to predict behaviour and only then can an effective reward economy be created.

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